HL Deb 22 July 1965 vol 268 cc903-7

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Highlands and Islands Development (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her interest, so far as it is concerned on behalf of the Crown, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. In doing so, I should like to say how grateful I am to noble Lords for the consideration which they have given to this very important Bill in the interests of the Highlands of Scotland. I ought to have done this at the end of the Committee stage, but there was a race between myself and the 10.15 train for Scotland. But I would not wish noble Lords to think that I was not appreciative of the way in which Amendments were tabled, carried and, in some cases, withdrawn, in the best interests of the measure.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a. —(Lord Hughes.)


My Lords, I do not wish to take up the time of the House, as there is a lot of Business ahead of us, but I should like to say a few words on this occasion. The noble Lord is aware that my noble friends on this side of the House have given a general welcome to the principles of the Bill. At the same time, I think that he will realise that even now we are not altogether satisfied that the Bill is as it might be. We are sorry that the noble Lord has not been able to meet us in many of the suggestions put forward by my noble friends, though I know that he appreciates the sincerity of our desire to achieve the best for the Highlands and Islands, as much as we do his.

In particular, I am sorry that he was unable to accede to our suggestions regarding the strengthening of the appeal machinery, for, despite his reassurances, I still feel that there is a danger that the individual, be he the small farmer or possibly the small hotelkeeper, will feel himself to be rather at the mercy of a somewhat impersonal, new, authoritarian body. I hope that I am wrong on this, but to my mind the danger is still there.

However, as the noble Lord has said, the Bill has been improved in its passage through the House and we are grateful to him for the morsels that have fallen from his table. I am equally sure that my noble friends on this side are very conscious of the patient and courteous way in which he has piloted the Bill through all its stages, and we are grateful to him for that. The important thing now is that the Bill should work, and work well. We all hope that it will. And, on behalf of my noble friends, I should like to wish the new Board every success in its vital and urgent task.


My Lords, before the Bill passes, may I just remind the Government of the experience of the late Lord Leverhulme, that great philanthropist who spent £2 million in the Hebrides to, I am afraid, very little account? Therefore, I would beseech the Government to "gang warily" in the Celtic twilight. They will have to be very tactful. But I hope that the objects of the Bill have every success, and they have my best wishes.


My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for the way in which he has conducted this Bill. I hope that the Bill is not going to be so much a Celtic twilight as a herald of the Celtic dawn. May I just make four points? First of all, the success of the Bill in helping the Highlands will depend on two things: first, on how well the Board diagnoses the needs of the Highlands and carries with it the various authorities, local government and others, operating in the Highlands; and, secondly, on the willingness of the Treasury to find the money. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to find the right kind of Board, with the necessary expertise as well as the necessary enthusiasm. I must say that I am sorry that his hands have been somewhat tied by the condition laid down that half of the Board, including the chairman, must be whole-time. I should only like to say that if the Government want to alter this at any time, we shall be glad to assist them.

The second point is this. Our probings have revealed that, while the Scottish Office naturally want to leave the initiative in proposals to the Board and have no desire to interfere with the day-to-day working of the Board, the Board will not be an independent body in the sense that a nationalised corporation or even a New Town corporation is independent. In another place an effort was made to make the Board at least subject to independent audit. Here we tried to secure that any undertakings and businesses that they set up should be subject to independent audit. The Government resisted us. The fact remains that this Board is to be not so much an independent Board as an extension of Government. I do not think its status matters so much, so long as it is effective; but it is as well that its status should be understood.

Thirdly, we have tried to draw a distinction between individual ventures which the Board will carry out on its own, and the considerable joint projects which the Board will "concert and promote", to use the words of the Bill, but which will be largely carried out by local authorities and the multifarious commissions, corporations, companies and so on which operate in the Highlands as chosen instruments of the Government. We believe that the latter projects should be submitted to Parliament and subject to annulment. The Scottish Office have resisted that. I must say that I do not entirely blame them. It would be infuriating, I think, if such projects were handicapped, hamstrung or just plain wrecked by uninformed criticism in Parliament, for this very good reason: that, as has been said time and time again in this debate, the problems of the Highlands are unique and deserve special treatment.

That leads me to my fourth and last point. Because of the special and unique character of the Highlands, we do not oppose this Bill. As my noble friend said, we welcome it, even though it contains a conglomeration of powers, no doubt much precedented individually, but, taken as a whole, quite unparalleled in scope and range, even though it con- tains no Parliamentary safeguards at all. Nevertheless, the Government must not deduce that we are prepared to permit this Bill to be treated in any way as a precedent for other parts of the country. The setting up of a Government agency with almost unlimited powers, subject only to the control—admittedly, the close control—of a Minister, we regard as akin to the exercise of emergency powers and not as a pattern for Parliamentary democracy in the ordinary way.

I believe that this Bill can be, and I hope it will be, an important Bill for the Highlands. We trust that the Board will be fertile in its ideas and sound in their execution, and that it will exercise its powers with discretion and general acceptance in the Highlands. A great deal depends on its ability to carry with it the people of the Highlands. We trust, also, that the Exchequer will be generous, whatever the financial position. I believe that not only do the Highlands deserve, as well as need, generosity, but that the nation needs the Highlands, and will need them more and more in this crowded island as the years go by.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my words of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, who has conducted this rather lengthy discussion with skill and great perseverance. I, too, would say that this is an interesting Bill, and it has been almost universally welcomed in its intentions. The Government have achieved a remarkable situation, in that they have got right through the Bill without ever explaining at any time any schemes they proposed to carry out under it. It is very like the famous Bill at the beginning of the eighteenth century: "For a purpose hereafter to be revealed"; that is, in the gathering of powers which the Government have taken under this Bill. I am sure that the Board will need a great deal of co-operation, and I hope they will see that they have finance.

Like my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, I, too, should like to refer for a moment to the structure of the organisation which we are here setting up. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will, I am sure, be familiar with the poem by Robert Burns about the henpecked husband. He will remember that it says: He has no sixpence but in her possession. This Board will spend no sixpence if it is against the wishes of the Secretary of State. They cannot have their own auditors. They cannot set up a clerical post without the consent of the Treasury. If they run a business, they need not publish a balance sheet. We know that administrative guidance will be given. The Board is really a sub-branch of the Scottish Office. I do not think that is right, although it may be. If it is, I wish the Board good fortune. But do not let us conceal from ourselves the nature of the structure which we are setting up; and, above all, do not let it be quoted to us as a precedent. What has happened is this: the Bill is setting up a wide range of powers in this new Board, wider, I think, than any other Board have, and the Secretary of State has placed them completely under his own control. So in many ways the present Secretary of State for Scotland has much wider powers than any other Secretary of State has had. I wish the Board well, and I hope that they will succeed. The conditions of the Highlands are exceptional, and it may well be that they will need exceptional treatment.

On Question, Bill read 3a with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.